E.A. Sports Today

Magic City miracle

Piedmont makes greatest comeback in finals history, rallies from 23-point halftime deficit to win another Class 3A state title

Piedmont quarterback Jack Hayes (7) was named MVP of the Class 3A state title game for the second time in his career. He threw three touchdown passes and accounted for five in the Bulldogs’ 23-point comeback victory.

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

BIRMINGHAM – When Jack Hayes watches the tape of the last state championship Piedmont won in football, he skips the entire first half and goes right to the second.

Piedmont coach Steve Smith has the exact spot marked on the digital counter on his YouTube so he can go right to it as well.

The Bulldogs will no doubt do the same with the tape of the title they won Thursday afternoon in Protective Stadium. They staged one of the greatest comebacks in Alabama state championship football history, coming from 23 points down at halftime to beat Montgomery Academy 35-33 for the Class 3A crown..

It was their fifth state title all time, second in three years and fourth in the last seven.

“I can’t say enough good things about our guys,” Smith said. “Obviously the first half didn’t go very well. We got behind big and at halftime. We didn’t really peel the paint off the walls or anything. We just told our guys that if something didn’t change we weren’t going to be happy and we were going to have to play two more quarters whether they were good or bad.

“We’ve been behind before. We’ve got an older team, an experienced team, guys who do a good job of holding it together. I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of anything like that. What an outstanding job our guys did in the second half of coming back and coming all the way back.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE: After exhaustive overnight research by EA Sports Today contributor Kurt Duryea, narrowing it to 33 potential candidates among the other 304 championship games since 1966, it has been determined the Piedmont comeback is the largest rally in finals history.)

Hayes was the title game MVP for the second time in his career. He rallied the Bulldogs from a 29-6 deficit at halftime against a team with an ‘ultra modern’ defense that gave them fits in the first half. He threw three touchdown passes in the second half – two in the fourth quarter — and was responsible for five in the game.

He completed 8 of 17 passes for 123 yards and rushed for 143 yards and two scores on 36 carries. At one point in the game, the junior had as many carries (24) as Montgomery Academy run had plays.

He now has 121 career touchdown passes and 163 touchdowns accounted for, and should overtake the top spot on both AHSAA all-time lists next season.

“Nothing really changed with our game plan (in the second half), we just had to come together as a team,” Hayes said. “(Smith) just told us in the locker room that we have 24 minutes left in the season, so give it all we got and make it the greatest comeback anybody’s ever seen.”

Piedmont quarterback Jack Hayes (7) leaps through Montgomery Academy linebacker Arch Lee to help move the chains. (Photo by Greg Warren)

The rally reminded the Bulldogs of their second-half comeback in the 2019 title game against Mobile Christian when they came from 10-0 down at halftime to win 26-24 on the last play of the game. They were down 17 points several times this year against Jacksonville and were down 21-8 in the state semifinals to Randolph County in 2018.

The Eagles “ultra-modern” defense and a half dozen big plays conspired to put Piedmont in its hole at halftime and receiver Austin Estes admitted “there definitely were a lot of frowns and long faces when we went in.”

But there was no fire-and-brimstone speeches to peel the paint of the locker room walls. Smith simply told his players like it was and sent them back to work.

“To be honest, I was expecting them to get on us pretty good because we weren’t playing how we were supposed to be playing,” linebacker Landon Smart said. “We weren’t playing together and doing our assignments. He was just calm and told us we just had to get out there and do it.”

The Bulldogs scored on their first four possessions of the second half – five in a row counting their last possession of the second quarter – and wiped out their entire deficit in about 17 minutes of game clock.

They got close when Hayes hit Estes on a 28-yard pass 56 seconds into the fourth quarter, but missed the two-point conversion to tie. They took the lead on Hayes’ 25-yard touchdown pass to Estes three minutes later after Smart recovered a fumble.

“I told everybody if we got it within one score before the fourth quarter that we were going to win the game,” Hayes said. “It’s just the mindset we have at Piedmont that we’re never out of a game, and that really showed today.”

Piedmont receiver Austin Estes (9) celebrates after one of his two fourth-quarter touchdown catches in the Bulldogs’ rally. (Photo by Greg Warren)

The second Hayes-to-Estes touchdown put them up 35-29 and then, as the stadium’s name suggested, the Bulldogs went about being protective of it.

The Bulldogs took safeties on back-to-back possessions in the final five minutes, the second of which really went against the book given the score and time. But Smith listened to his gut and put it on his defense and they delivered.

The defense held the Eagles to only 44 yards and the four points they gave them in the second half.

On Montgomery Academy’s last two possessions, Trent Young recovered a fumble forced by Ruston Bassett and on the last defensive stand of the game, Noah Reedy got two sacks (the last one on fourth down) and Chance Murphy batted down a third-down pass.

“Our defense has been really, really good all year long,” Smith said. “They’ve had some lapses from time to time but I’ve got a lot of confidence in those guys. As the way things were transpiring there in the second half we felt very confident there we could stop them.”

“We knew if we stopped them on that drive that we win,” Smart said. “We put our all into that drive.”

Piedmont’s Noah Reedy overwhelms Montgomery Academy quarterback Jamal Cooper for his game-sealing fourth-quarter sack. (Photo by Greg Warren)

Montgomery Academy went up 14-0 in the first quarter with touchdowns less than two minutes apart. The Eagles found the end zone for the first time on a 62-yard run by quarterback Jamal Cooper and extended the lead to 14-0 on a 29-yard pass from Cooper to tight end Will Hardin.

The pass came on the first play after Chance Wilson blocked and recovered a Sloan Smith punt.

“Those two plays, wow; absolutely highlight plays,” Eagles coach Robert Johnson said.

The Eagles’ defense, which had players coming from all kinds of directions, stymied the Bulldogs early. Hayes broke off a 36-yard run up the middle on the Bulldogs’ first possession, but then managed only six yards net offense through their first possession of the second quarter.

That defense produced MA’s third touchdown, a 67-yard interception return by Wilson with 5:23 left in the half.

Piedmont finally got on the board with 1:33 left in the half when Hayes bulled into the end zone from 6 yards out. The drive was boosted by a curious pass interference call on an underthrown ball with the defender between Hayes and the intended receiver.

They Bulldogs went for 2 and Hayes’ pass fell incomplete.

The Eagles weren’t deterred. Knowing Piedmont would get the ball to start the second half, Cooper completed two long passes to D.J. Vinson to get it inside the Piedmont 5 with 40 seconds left and Jashawn Cooper stretched into the end zone from the 2 with 16 seconds to go. Judson Lindsey ran in the conversion and it was 29-6.

The 29 points were the most Piedmont has allowed in any of their state championship game appearance. 

It’s not likely any of the Bulldogs will want to watch that again. But that second half … they’ll watch that for a long time.

‘I’m not watching until after halftime,” Estes said. “I’ll watch the band and then all of the rest of it.”

Piedmont 35, Montgomery Academy 33

Mont. Acad.14150433

M – Jamal Cooper 62 run (Alex Kohn kick), 2:45 1Q
M – Will Hardin 28 pass from Jamal Cooper (Alex Kohn kick), 0:53 1Q
M – Chance Wilson 67 interception return (Alex Kohn kick), 5:23 2Q
P – Jack Hayes 6 run (pass failed), 1:33 2Q
M – Jashawn Cooper 2 run (Judson Lindsey run), 0:16 2Q
P – Jack Hayes 1 run (Sloan Smith kick), 8:44 3Q
P – Omarion Foster 31 pass from Jack Hayes (Austin Estes pass from Jack Hayes), 5:09 3Q
P – Austin Estes 28 pass from Jack Hayes (run failed), 11:04 4Q
P – Austin Estes 25 pass from Jack Hayes (Austin Estes run), 8:40 4Q
M – Safety, 5:18 4Q
M – Safety, 1:02 4Q

MA (33)Pied (35)
91st Downs19
106Passing yds123

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